Arabian Library

In the 21st-century book repository, librarians are not just researchers or keepers of the peace; they’re customer-service agents. Books, DVDs, and magazines? All products that must be made desirable and consumable. The staff of today’s library encourages talking, hanging out (loitering in the old days), even sipping lattes. The era of the formal library, with heavy wooden desks and high, imposing shelves, is over; also passing is the era of the Modernist library, with its scratchy, primary-color carpet and “Reading Is Fun!” posters. The institutions replacing them—such as the Richärd + Bauer–designed Arabian Library, in Scottsdale, Arizona—aren’t so much libraries as library experiences.

Merchandising is the current dictum in progressive public libraries. “That’s the new concept,” says Scottsdale’s library director, Rita Hamilton. “You give people what they want as opposed to what you think they need—that’s what you have to do if you want them to keep coming back.” It’s a direction that may sound alarming to literary traditionalists, but judging from the buzz of patrons on a recent weekday afternoon in sunny Scottsdale, it is one that has found favor with a population that grew up in malls and shopping centers.

When Jim Richärd and Kelly Bauer began work in 2003 on the Arabian Library (each of Scottsdale’s branches is named after a breed of horse), they had to balance this new concept, which the local librarians embraced, with the community’s desire for a building that responded to the desert setting and the city’s interest in completing a LEED-rated project.

The duo could have sketched up a stucco-and-mission-tile storefront, piled books in the window, slapped solar panels on the roof, and called it a day, but fortunately their civic instincts prevailed. Instead of drawing on the neo-Southwest style that dominates the area, Richärd and Bauer, both of whom have been studying and practicing in Arizona for more than 20 years, looked to the landscape as an inspiration for the rusted-steel panels that clad the building and open up to create a passageway reminiscent of a Richard Serra sculpture. Though they’ve seen Serra’s Barcelona sculptures in person, the real inspiration here was the Arizona desert’s dramatic slot canyons. “That’s where we got the experience from,” Bauer explains. “You never know what’s around the next turn. The mass of the canyon wall might hang over the trail, and then you might go around a corner and suddenly see blue sky. It’s an exploration. And if you hike out here, you always find things rusted and left over from another era.”

Like an object forgotten and then found, the library sits in a north Scottsdale community complex that includes a middle school, an elementary school, and a swimming center, ringed by busy streets and backed by the McDowell Mountains. Richärd and Bauer gave the building a low, variegated profile, trying to avoid any kind of big-box connotations. Still, there are vocal community opponents who find the bold design jarring and ugly. The original plan called for a green roof that would have added a garden to the higher parts and deep tree plantings on the lower areas, but budget limitations meant that it was never added. In addition to providing a respite for the steel-weary eye, the garden would have been a significant environmental feature for the project, which is currently aiming for a LEED Silver rating.

Designing one of the first projects in Scottsdale to go for LEED certification, the ten-person Phoenix-based firm was conscious of being a standard-bearer. The use of local materials became a given. The steel, prerusted for easy maintenance, comes from Reliance Metalcenter, in Phoenix; the decomposed granite currently lining the roof is regional; the insulation consists of recycled cotton made in nearby Chandler. The parking area includes charging stations for alternative-fuel vehicles and is also, in a sense, recycled: the architects sited the building to take advantage of an existing lot. “A number of things that go into LEED make the library a better place for customers,” Hamilton says. “The use of recycled materials, low-VOC paint, and low carbon—those all contribute to the indoor air quality. The daylighting, which they did a fantastic job on, also makes for a better space to use computers and read books.”

The recycled-MDF Peg-Board ceiling was a budget concession, but the swag lamps with white shades that hang from the board on draped black cords remain favorites of the design team. Besides working as flexible elements that can be easily moved, the lamps also helped create the sense that “it’s a big living room for the community,” Bauer says. It certainly feels that way, with patrons talking in indoor voices over piles of books or settled comfortably in Eames Aluminum Group Herman Miller chairs. Inside, it’s easy to forget the less picturesque parts of the surroundings because the idea of the slot canyon, with its hidden vistas, has been brought indoors. Full-length windows take in the quiet, enclosed interior courtyard while views of the surrounding mountains are carefully framed to filter out a busy road on the west side as well as a nearby gas station and mini mall.

The designers tucked the teen center—which drops down like a sunken living room—into a discreet corner of the main room, and they attached an outdoor courtyard, with a few tables and chairs and a steel cylinder that looks like a side table. Someone, presumably a teen, has painted the word Sexy! on it with Wite-Out or white nail polish—there’s even a heart in the exclamation mark—and though the young graffiti artist may not know it, it is a rather sexy aspect of the green design. The HVAC system, contained in the 18-inch raised floors, circulates air via these steel baskets, lowering the temperature of the outdoor courtyard and making it bearable even in the Arizona sun.

At the other end of the library is a separate area for very young children, built to scale with lower ceilings and an inviting shelving system created by the Burgeon Group, a local firm headed by Kim van der Veen, former director of the Children’s Museum of Phoenix. Picture books share space with interactive panels—one looks like an artist’s palette, inlaid with flora and fauna from the desert; another has a map of the world inset with coins from different countries. After designing about two dozen libraries—their first was the Mesquite Branch Library for Phoenix in 1996 —Richärd and Bauer know that the children’s areas must be located as far as possible from the teen area, because teens won’t be caught dead near an area that feels too young.

The goals of today’s library are virtually the same as those of a store: you want people to take an interest in your products and bring them home. You need to make those products as attractive as possible and eliminate all barriers to sale (or borrowing). “We started merchandising in all of our locations about three years ago,” Hamilton says. “The challenge was, there weren’t fixtures out there for libraries to do that. We had to work closely with our shelving vendor, and they created fixtures that were unique to us—and are now selling to other libraries.” Since the introduction of the merchandising initiative, Scottsdale’s book circulation has trended steadily upward, with a 25 percent jump over last year.

One of the biggest changes that the retailing revolution brought to libraries is the elimination of the traditional circulation desk, where librarians once reigned over the stacks. At the suggestion of Hamilton, Bauer says, “We were able to cut the umbilical cord of the desk.” Instead, there is a floating self-checkout stand and an open information area where librarians stand side by side with customers as they look up information on a computer. More surprising than the end of the circulation desk might be the advent of another retail phenomenon. The library allows patrons to reserve books online or via phone and then pick them up at a drive-through window serviced from the interior offices that house the branch’s 26 employees.

Walking out of the Arabian Library at dusk, just as reluctant teens are corralled by their parents and a postwork crowd stops by to pick up reading material, the feeling of entering a desert canyon is even more pronounced. It may not be exactly what the entire community wanted, but it is what Richärd + Bauer were convinced it needed. “In the spring, it was completely surrounded by wildflowers, accenting the angle of the mountains,” Hamilton says.

On the northeast wall of the glowing courtyard is a two-foot-tall jumble of word fragments in Greek and Braille, and even genetic code arranged in the shape of the skeletal framework of the prickly-pear cactus, all etched into the glass window as part of the artist Norie Sato’s Desert Tracery. Like a hike through layers of meaning and intention, the prickly-pear image directs visitors into a hushed steel passageway that leads out to the parking lot, where, for a moment, they must crane their necks to see the sky. Then the route twists, and the quiet moment between library and world is over.

The 2008 IIDA/Metropolis Smart Environments Award Winners:
ARABIAN LIBRARY
Scottsdale, Arizona

SWEETGREEN RESTAURANT
Washington, D.C.

ALLEY 24
Seattle

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